What is Bipolar?
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." Psalm 34: 18
Within popular culture, bipolar disorder is often glamourised. We usually see it portrayed as a condition that is associated with creativity, energy and fun; the challenges associated with it are often overlooked.
Previously referred to as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that is defined by the presence of depressive episodes and manic states. Mania occurs when there is a persistent elevation of the mood, usually for at least 7 consecutive days. Alongside this, there are other characteristic symptoms, including excessive spending, rapid speech, increased energy levels, a decreased need for sleep and grandiose thoughts.
Manic symptoms can also include delusional beliefs, which themselves may touch on religious themes. This does not mean that the presence of a strong faith is a sign of bipolar disorder, but rather that existing beliefs may become exaggerated, or there is a preoccupation around certain themes. In some instances, certain beliefs become deeply entrenched and resistant to any form of challenge. Understandably, this can be very invalidating for some Christians and requires a sensitive and empathic approach amongst family, friends and members of one's church community.
Whilst manic symptoms can seem to be harmless and people who are ‘high’ can be very pleasant and fun to be around, mania can cause people to take risks they would not normally take and engage in embarrassing behaviour. Within a Christian context, it is important to contextualise any such behaviour and refrain from judgment.
Much of the focus tends to be on manic states, but more time is typically spent in depression with this condition and the depressive episodes can be debilitating and dispiriting. The core symptoms are essentially the same ones that occur within a classic (unipolar) depressive episode e.g.the persistent suppression of one's mood, low energy levels, an inability to enjoy previously pleasurable activities, poor concentration and reduced appetite. It is typically within this context that people may experience thoughts that life is not worth living. The depressive episodes can last for weeks or months.
Having mood swings does not constitute the presence of bipolar disorder. There is a specific pattern that occurs within bipolar disorder, best recognised by a suitably qualified mental health professional who can make the diagnosis, rather than Dr Google!
Most mental health conditions can be thought as occurring in the context of biological, psychological and social factors. Bipolar disorder is strongly considered to be very much at the biological end of the spectrum and is known to occur more commonly in families in which there is already a person with an established diagnosis. This strongly indicates that genetic factors play a significant role in whether somebody experiences bipolar in their lifetime. It most commonly begins in mid-20s. Further episodes may be brought on by periods of significant stress or a lack of sleep.
The frequency with which episodes occur varies significantly from person to person. However, in most cases medication is required on a long-term basis to reduce the intensity and the frequency of episodes. In some cases, it is not possible to completely eliminate the presence of depressive or manic episodes, but to try and gain better control on the symptoms.
As with any other chronic condition, these hard facts can be difficult to swallow, particularly in the realms of unanswered prayer and healing ministry.
The fluctuations from depression to mania and back again can leave people broken hearted, frustrated and questioning God. Bipolar disorder strikes at the heart of our theology concerning mental illness.
Bipolar disorder is a condition that requires specialist assessment and treatment. If you are concerned that you or a loved one might be exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder, you should encourage them to contact their GP. Spiritual support can be of huge value and help to reduce the stigma associated with this condition, but must be regarded as a compliment rather than an alternative to medical intervention.
Further information on bipolar disorder:
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the NHS and in independent practice, as well as a Mind & Soul Foundation Director